What’s Going Wrong at the Pacific Research Institute?

Early in July extreme left-wing Mother Jones magazine published a piece claiming that Sally Pipes, the head of the Pacific Research Institute, was not doing a very effective job of leading the San Francisco-based conservative, free-market think tank. Unfortunately, whether the magazine is left-wing or not and whether these questions make me comfortable or not (they don’t), there seems to be some truth in the story.

The magazine focused on the excessive amount of money that Pipes has requisitioned from the think tank to pay for Public Relations agencies to assist her in writing the many books, papers, articles and the like that carries Pipes’ name. Calling her “supernaturally prolific,” Mother Jones reported that Pipes employs Keybridge Communications to do the writing.

In fact, according to Mother Jones, Pipes has spent “nearly $1 million — $400,000 alone in 2010” on the services of Keybridge. This is a substantial amount of money considering that the institute has an annual budget of only $4 million. To have spent such a huge chunk on “research assistance” is quite a lot, indeed.

Pipes has a very high profile in conservative circles. She is a sought after speaker with a specialty in healthcare. She’s worked with such big name groups as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, and her work appears in newspapers, magazines, and websites everywhere — such as Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, and National Review. Pipes is also listed as the author of at least a half dozen books.

Pipes is a naturalized American originally from Canada and made her first mark as the Assistant Director of the Fraser Institute, Vancouver, Canada. Using her familiarity with the Canadian healthcare system, Pipes became known in the U.S. for raising the clarion call warning America against socialist healthcare systems. As it happens, I find what Pipes has to say about healthcare valid.

Once Obamacare became the central issue of the day, Pipes quickly became an authority speaking frequently on the subject.

Reputation as an expert or no, it might be considered problematic if Pipes has the constant assistance of a ghostwriting agency, especially for the president of a think tank. After all, usually think tanks greatly value the academic work of their members. Consequently, unlike in politics, ghostwritten work is not standard or customary. Usually the denizens of think tanks are required to write their own stuff, for sure.

Another one of the interesting issues is the fact that Pipes doesn’t seem to have the think tank standard of education to “qualify” her for the position she holds, the papers she writes, or the testimony she’s given before Congress. Her biographies never seem to mention much on the subject of her education.

Certainly if what someone writes is demonstrably right, properly erudite, or academically logical, the education the speaker (or writer) may be immaterial, granted. And this over-reliance on some long list of degrees can also appear absurd. However, for think tanks at least, an advanced education is usually a prerequisite, not an option.

Yet Pipes has attained this superior position seemingly without a lot of sheepskins to her credit. Good for her, I may say, but still this makes her an outlier in the world of think tanks.

So, what is going on here? Are Mother Jones and other far left websites just being partisan? To some degree, yes. After all, what Pipes has to say about healthcare is in no way out of the ordinary for conservatives and it does seriously challenge the left’s positions on the subject. The fact is, Pipes is not in the least bit controversial on her chief subject for the free market side she represents.

But what about her “supernaturally prolific” writing output? She does have a great deal of work attributed to her name, and more rolls out every month. With this the accusation that Pipes is using PR agencies or industry flacks to write her work, to which she just affixes her name, seems quite plausible. This, if absolutely true, would make her leadership of the PRI a shell game and a rather self-serving one, too.

I made some calls and sent some emails to see what I could find out. I was able to get a lot of feedback, but only on background. It might be easy to dismiss Mother Jones’ piece based as it is on unnamed “former PRI staffers.” But as I tried to look into this story myself, I quickly found out that no one wanted to go on the record. Internal mud slinging is, in the sophisticated and educated think tank world, a taboo.

I also looked around online. While there wasn’t much to find there, one thing I found was a video of Pipes that was made just before the Supreme Court’s recent Obamacare decision. The most remarkable thing about the video is that Pipes allowed herself to be called “Doctor Pipes” during the entire interview. But as noted above, and in the Mother Jones article, it doesn’t appear that Sally Pipes has any advanced college degree that would afford her the title of “doctor.” Oddly however, she never corrected the interviewer, a media figure she has been acquainted with for many years.

It was the off-record communications I had with folks close to the institute that really raised my eyebrow. The primary complaint I heard was that Pipes uses PRI as her personal and principal means of self-promotion, but leaves few resources to further the work of the other acclaimed scholars and researchers of the Institute.

One source told me that a PRI’s researcher had to fight Pipes tooth and nail for even a small amount of money to help him purchase advertising for his work, even as Pipes routinely spends thousands of dollars of PRI’s earmarked funds to advertise her own work. It seems that Pipes sucks up all of the institute’s funds for her own personal promotion, leaving little else for the scholars and researchers at the think tank, despite any funding allocated for their specific projects.

Another person attached to PRI warned me that Pipes routinely inflates the marketing costs for her work. I am told that if someone can acquire her proposals to the board, one would soon find the sum of $25,000 constantly quoted for marketing. This source also says that $25,000 is an extremely high quote for that purpose.

In any case, I understand that the issues raised here appear unverifiable. But, it appears to me that there are some troubling questions that need deeper investigation by responsible people, and maybe even think tank donors. It appears that the Pacific Research Institute is being held back by Pipes, that other scholars and researchers of the institute are being unfairly pushed to the background in order to flog Pipes’ work and inflate her persona, and that some top notch, important free market research is being lost because of one vainglorious individual.

It seems to me that the Pacific Research Institute is being misled and wasted under the leadership of Sally Pipes.

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